By Ewan Roberts
So often England’s major tournament exits have carried some sense of injustice, whether it be from an overreacting Argentine, a winking Portuguese or the Hand of God himself. Two years ago in Kiev, however, the Three Lions slumped out of Euro 2012 having been beaten fairly and squarely by a majestic Italian: the effortlessly classy Andrea Pirlo.
That match, which impossibly went to penalties after 120 minutes of goalless dominance from Cesare Prandelli’s side, belonged solely to 'l'Architetto', who capped his controlling display with a cheeky ‘Panenka’ penalty that deceived Joe Hart and drew both first blood in the shootout as well as begrudging respect from the opponents he would send crashing out of the competition.
Back then, Pirlo made more passes than the entire England midfield quartet combined and his tally of 139 dwarfed the 44 attempted by England’s most prolific passer that night, Ashley Cole. Even more worryingly, the Three Lions’ most common pass combination was Joe Hart to Andy Carroll.
Unsurprisingly, Italy assumed total control of the contest, recording 63 per cent possession and 31 shots on goal (18 on target) compared to just eight shots (with four on target) for England. The gulf in class was startling, with Pirlo, the self-professed "wandering gypsy", delivering a beguiling performance that highlighted the contrast between England’s huffing-and-puffing work-horses and Italy’s nerveless technicians.
Now 35 years old and with two more Scudetti titles secured for Juventus in the intervening years, Pirlo will take on England in Manaus on Saturday in a repeat of their quarter-final in Ukraine two years ago. The vineyard-bothering playmaker may be older but he remains the heartbeat of the Azzurri and is perhaps the only outfield player totally assured of his place in Prandelli’s side.
With the rest of Italy’s starting XI in flux and with Pirlo still so influential, England’s hopes of victory are likely to rest almost exclusively on stifling the Juve midfielder – though that is easier said than done, even for a manager, Roy Hodgson, who coached Pirlo while at Inter together.
“How are we going to stop Pirlo? What we’re going to do first of all is play better this time than we did then,” the bullish England boss told the press. “The Italy game was actually our worst performance of that tournament and all the players would agree with me. We didn’t think we played anywhere near as well as we could. Against a tiring team Pirlo had a very good game because he’s a very good player.”
In Ukraine, Hodgson opted for a flat 4-4-2 against Italy, with Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck starting the match up front. England’s defence sat deep, while a midfield positioned just a few yards ahead of the back line struggled to keep or retain possession. Italy’s diamond outnumbered their opponents in the middle of the pitch, while their full-backs, consistently supplied by Pirlo, added the width of which England were starved.
Throughout the contest Pirlo dictated proceedings and, even more so as the game wore on, found himself with an astonishing amount of time and space. The main culprit for Pirlo’s oasis of calm on the ball was the sluggish Rooney, who struggled to close down the Italian or put him under any degree of pressure. With England’s attacking duo always goal-side of Pirlo, it was far too easy for the veteran to collect possession.
His main supply line came from the back four, though England were too slow to close him down or disrupt, and Rooney’s lethargy was totally at odds with the energetic display delivered by Park Ji-Sung for Manchester United in a Champions League clash against AC Milan two years earlier, a performance that should be considered the very pinnacle of how to stop Pirlo.
“The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed around the pitch at the speed of an electron,” noted Pirlo in his autobiography. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Rooney has spent warm-up friendlies and training drills positioned on the left wing, with Hodgson set to look elsewhere for his own Park.
Welbeck seems the prime candidate, having notably been preferred in the hole to Rooney by Sir Alex Ferguson when United faced Real Madrid in the Champions League in 2013. The leggy forward brings a tenacity and zest that Rooney does not, though his participation was thrown into doubt after missing training with a thigh problem.
Whoever is tasked with marshalling Pirlo can also expect greater support both in hassling the Italian maestro, with Adam Lallana part of an aggressive pressing Southampton side who completed the second-most final-third tackles in the Premier League last term, as well as greater ball retention from his own team-mates, with Steven Gerrard having fully embraced his new regista role, playing 2219 passes in the league last term compared to 2070 for Pirlo.
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“We’re going to make certain that Italy have a lot more to concern themselves about with our attacking play because one of the problems we had in that game is that we weren’t functioning well as an attacking unit. One of our plans this time is to make certain we do a lot more attacking.”
England go into their World Cup with a young, pacey outfit that could worry the Italians, especially on turnovers, though Hodgson cannot allow his side to sacrifice possession – and thus expire more energy in trying to win back the ball – to the extent they did in Kiev, especially in the heat and humidity of Manaus.
Stopping Pirlo will be imperative and a younger Three Lions side feel much better equipped to deny the Azzurri’s cerebral hub time to scheme. Italy are, of course, more than just a one-man team – with the Juve playmaker himself insisting that his team-mates are not “Pirlo-dependent” – and focusing on the bearded professore alone could prove costly but it is a risk that England will have to take.
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